Tag Archives: Yvonne Gilbert



Hackney Empire

ALADDIN at the Hackney Empire


“Clive Rowe is truly the grand dame of panto dames”

Stuff Shakespeare, Pantomime is probably my favourite theatrical tradition. There are not many other settings where you can have babies, grandparents, and long-suffering assorted other relatives entertained for a couple of hours by good old British drag.

And Clive Rowe knows how to entertain. His stewardship at the Hackney Empire continues this year with another barnstorming performance as Mother Twanky in Aladdin. We are transported to the land of Hack-ne-lah, for a riot of fun, anti-consumerism and disco dancing. Trust me, it works!

Do I need to explain the plot? Probably not. The main additions to the traditional tale here are the sneering, evil billionaire Mildew Funk played in gloriously writhing camp fashion by George Heyworth (better known as Bourgeois in the celebrated cabaret duo Bourgeois and Maurice), who unfortunately also happens to be Jazz’s (Isabella Mason) father. He is determined to marry her off to a fellow rich man, when her heart has already been captured by the pure and kind Aladdin (Fred Double). The biggest baddie is Abby-na-zaaar! spelt properly with three ‘As’, one ‘R’, and an exclamation mark (Natasha Lewis). She is determined to become the most powerful wizard in the world, and also the best trombonist. I did not realise my panto needed brass on stage, but turns out it really does, especially accompanying a reworked Meghan Trainor song.

Aside from the magic lamp, there’s also a magic ring (the spirit of which is played by a charismatic and ditsy Ruth Lynch), who’s provenance got slightly lost in the exposition of the opening scenes, but nonetheless is charming.

“Cleo Pettitt on costumes ramps up the camp and comedy with each one: the sparkling dirty martini glass dress is the literal cherry on top”

Rounding out the cast is Rishi Manuel as Wishy, who does a great line in slapstick comedy, and pulls the audience through the obligatory participation songs. Kat B is the coolest genie I’ve ever seen, in a plunge neck disco outfit, and towering platforms.

Rowe also directs, and has assisted Will Brenton in writing the script. Once the heavy lifting of character introductions is out the way, Rowe warms the audience up with the help of a laundry list of gags – literally. Pun after pun after visual joke came tumbling out of Widow Twanky like the assorted items out of her brilliant bag lady dress, embossed with Groucci. The outfits get more and more extraordinary – Cleo Pettitt on costumes ramps up the camp and comedy with each one: the sparkling dirty martini glass dress is the literal cherry on top.

The big dance numbers also show off the talented ensemble and heighten the energy even more, grabbing the attention of even the chatty two year old sitting next to me. Myles Brown’s choreography, using professionals, (members of the Hackney Empire’s young Artist Development Programme, and the Vestry School of Dance and Performing Arts) is both polished, but also has an inclusive, community feel.

Though Widow Twanky might have moaned about the special effects budget, I was impressed by the sheer amount of pyrotechnics on show, and especially the magical carpet ride. Steve Edis’ original song here was also a welcome respite from memories of Peter Andre singing that version.

The short second act feels like it’s also had a gin at the interval, with the jokes getting more risqué, though firmly on the side of family friendly: the children around me were confused as to why I was laughing so hard at a gag about the Ultra Low Emissions Zone. I also think they might have been bypassed by the bisexual lighting and Aphrodite statue in a certain evil lair which foreshadowed a lovely romantic tryst and twist.

Hackney Empire once again presents yet another magnificent panto and Clive Rowe is truly the grand dame of panto dames. Long may his reign continue.

ALADDIN at the Hackney Empire

Reviewed on 30th November 2023

by Rosie Thomas

Photography by Steve Gregson



Other reviews by Rosie:

Manic Street Creature | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse Borough | October 2023
Dear England | ★★★★★ | Prince Edward Theatre | October 2023
The Flea | ★★★★ | The Yard Theatre | October 2023
The Least We Could Do | ★★★★★ | Hope Theatre | October 2023
Artefact | ★★★★ | Playground Theatre | September 2023
Something Unspoken | ★★★★ | Playground Theatre | September 2023
I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical | ★★★★★ | Wilton’s Music Hall | August 2023
The Wetsuitman | ★★★ | Arcola Theatre | August 2023
Spiral | ★★ | Jermyn Street Theatre | August 2023
Bloody Elle | ★★★★★ | Soho Theatre | July 2023
Bones | ★★★★ | Park Theatre | July 2023



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The Art of Illusion


Hampstead Theatre

THE ART OF ILLUSION at the Hampstead Theatre


The Art of Illusion

“This is true ensemble playing, where no one actor is the lead, but where each actor plays every part as though it were a starring role”


There are many illusions at work in the wonderful Art Of Illusion by Alexis Michalik, and you will enjoy watching this tale of magic tricks unfold. Waleed Akhtar’s lively translation of the French original, together with brilliant ensemble work by the actors under the direction of Tom Jackson Greaves, means the playing time of one hundred minutes flies by. It helps, too, that the production is staged in the more intimate Hampstead Theatre downstairs. It’s a space ideally suited for a play that has to be seen in close up by the audience, to succeed. The flexibility of the space allows a cast of characters from different times and places to constantly change right in front of your eyes — a sort of magic all by itself. And oh yes — let’s not forget the sounds of high stakes soccer matches that are a constant background to the action. On more than one occasion, it’s soccer that literally saves the day for our intrepid magicians in this play.

Soccer and magic tricks? What kind of a story is Michalik telling in The Art Of Illusion? We begin by thinking it’s an unlikely love story between a lover of mathematics who has come to believe in fate, and a petty thief who has stolen her bag. When December decides, on a whim, to return the stolen bag to April (yes, those really are their names) an extraordinary story unfolds. A Watchmaker is presiding over a tale that goes back several hundred years and connects seemingly unconnected people. What starts as a random encounter between two people turns out to be anything but. And as part of the magic of The Art of Illusion, this is also a story about how magic morphs into the tricks of early film making. We get to see how one Georges Méliès uses his knowledge of stage magic to produce film magic. And that’s just one intriguing tale told by this medley of extraordinary characters who begin as traveling conjurers and mutate into inventors of film. The biggest trick of all is watching how Michalik weaves his stories of 1776, 1828, 1871,1984 and 2000 together. Watching The Art Of Illusion is to marvel at the way in which the dramatist, as conjuror of time, mixes and matches all these different periods together while still moving the action forward. It’s ultimately all a gigantic act of illusion, starting with the magic tricks the actors perform to get the audience warmed up, to the way in which they transform from character to character. These character changes, often across gender and time periods, embody the same kind of effortless legerdemain in the acting, as the playwright manifests in his script.

There’s a lot, dramaturgically speaking, packed into The Art Of Illusion. The whole thing succeeds because every part of this production has been so carefully crafted, and fits together so well. Jackson Greaves has done sterling work in the direction and staging of this clever and engaging script, ably assisted by designer Simon Kenny. Matt Haskins and Yvonne Gilbert do great work with the lighting and sound, and there’s an “Illusion Consultant” (Ben Hart) on hand to assist with getting the magic tricks right. But the lion’s share of praise should go to the actors. Rina Fatania, Bettrys Jones, Martin Hyder, Norah Lopez Holden, Brian Martin and Kwaku Mills keep up a relentless pace, yet each character they portray is so clearly defined. This is true ensemble playing, where no one actor is the lead, but where each actor plays every part as though it were a starring role. The closest anyone comes to stealing a scene is probably Rina Fatania, whose portrayal of a mouthy fifteen year old video game player, is a great conclusion to the dazzling tapestry of characters in this play.

The Art Of Illusion is playing now at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until January 28th. Don’t miss it.



Reviewed on 3rd January 2023

by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Robert Day


Previously reviewed at this venue:


The Two Character Play | ★★★★ | July 2021
Big Big Sky | ★★★★ | August 2021
Night Mother | ★★★★ | October 2021
The Forest | ★★★ | February 2022
The Fever Syndrome | ★★★ | April 2022
The Breach | ★★★ | May 2022
The Fellowship | ★★★ | June 2022
Mary | ★★★★ | October 2022
Blackout Songs | ★★★★ | November 2022
Sons of the Prophet | ★★★★ | December 2022


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